Even before the Federal Aviation Administration had given permission for the DC-10 to resume flight, its manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas Corp., was working with its advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, to launch a campaign to redeem the aircraft's reputation. The theme is reported to be "Cleared for takeoff." John Bickers, McDonnell Douglas' director of advertising, was quoted as saying, "It was generally felt that younger travelers would be more concerned about the plane's safety than older travelers."
It's not clear why McDonnell Douglas feels that way. Perhaps younger travelers aren't habituated to accepting the sight of a loaded DC-10 falling out of the sky; perhaps older travelers have learned to think of the crash, the flames and the ensuing TV news pictures at the morgue as technological kismet, the price of progress. Or older people being older, have less life to lose and therefore worry less about catastrophes of all kinds.
"We want to address two issues in our advertising," quoth Bickers. "First, the public opinion and acceptance of the airlines that fly the plane, and, second, our own reputation as a corporation."
McDonnell Douglas' reputation will need more than slogans like "Cleared for takeoff" if its reputation isn't to go the way of the American Airlines Flight 191, the DC-10 that took the horrifying smack to earth outside of Chicago's O'Hare airport on May 25. Ever since that date, the company has been losing altitude.
The Wall Street Journal article summarizing the revelations and disclosures about the way Mac-Dee builds airplanes reads as though it were written by Ralph Nader. It alleges there were two periods of quality-control breakdown in the DC-10'S manufacture. One is supposed to have occurred "a few years ago" and accounts for the degradation found in the engine mount assemblies of some United Airlines planes. That airline acted more expeditiously than the FAA in grounding its own planes.
What is unclear from all the accounts is whether Mac-Dee warned its customers and/or the FAA it had been having quality-control problems. The same questions may be asked of the second period of quality-control breakdown alleged by the Journal. The accusations of poorly trained personnel and improperly maintained tools on the production line are disconcerting, although, the paper says, Mac-Dee maintains the quality control problem has been licked.
But will it stay licked? If it has already happened twice, as is being charged, what steps are being taken to see that there isn't a third quality control breakdown next year or the year after?
Mac-Dee's main line of defense so far has been to blame American and Continental airlines for deviating from the service manual when over-hauling the engines. According to Mac-Dee, American Airlines' procedures damaged the pylons holding the engines to the wings. (It was an engine drop-off that caused the May 25 crash.) American denies this, saying that Mac-Dee had two of its people in the hangar to observe when the new procuedure was first tried out. Months before the accident, according to Fortune magazine, surely no consumer-advocate rag. Continental Airlines had notified Mac-Dee that its maintenance procedure had damaged the engine mount and asked the manufacturer for advice. The plane builders did not pass a warning word of the incident along.
All in all, the tragedy and its aftermath have a disturbing similarity to the 1974 crash of another DC-10 in an accident that killed 346 people near Paris. Exactly who was at fault and whether or not the company had ignored red flags that its design was defective has never been established beyond a reasonable doubt, but, as Fortune observed, "McDonnell's lack of public candor following the 1974 accident was now being repeated. Instead of addressing the pylon problem forthrightly, the company was declining interviews and answering questions grudgingly -- if at all."
Both the FAA and the National Traffic Safety Board have also come out of this looking decidedly spongy. Premature and apparently erroneous statements on TV by the official accident investigators added to the confusion; the FAA was both so confused and so languid it had to be ordered by a federal judge to ground the DC-10S for safety inspection. It then developed that Langhorne Bond, FAA administrator, had a deficient understanding of the inspection techniques used.
Everyone involved may be cleared for take off, but in the public mind at least, they're not cleared of culpability.